A Broken Circle

I had forgotten we had apple trees on the farm. The kids just run past the orchard on the way to catch a frisbee or run through a sprinkler.

When my grandfather was alive, the trees were so laden that apples would fall all over the ground and rot. They weren’t the kind you get in grocery stores. Small and green and covered with sooty blotch, they were perfect in the pies and apple sauce that my grandmother would make. We could feed them to the cows, let the birds eat all the high ones, and still there were plenty for everyone.

It’s spring break and we have come to Ohio to see my parents. Only Mark, Luke, and Diana could come — Enrico, Sofia, and Virginia stayed home to work. The speakers in the car went kaput during the first hour, so we passed the trip in the old-fashioned way: with inane songs and potty humor. “Icabod is itchy, I am too!” Luke sang from the way back. “Has it gotten stuck in your head yet?”

In April, most the trees along the highways are still wiry brushes, but some have been rolled in a colored syrup. Chartreuse, persimmon, or purple, pinpricks of color outlining the structure, revealing its secrets.

We hugged my parents with bare faces for the first time in a year. Around the dinner table, we sat close together eating every last spaghetti strand clung with my mom’s meat sauce. It was as if nothing had happened.

But time could be measured in the wrinkles around my eyes, in Mark’s stature, now taller than mine, and in the gait of my parents, slower, tentative. They showed us how they sit on a bench before dinner to watch the kittens prance in the garden, chase flies, and stand at the bottom of trees looking up at the birds. And I know they are in the sunset of their lives.


The apple trees in the orchard call to me. A band of angels offering armfuls of blossoms to the sky. Behind every open flower are three or four more pink bells, ready to unfurl. Each five-petaled flower is the face of a child.

After dinner while the kids are playing on the tree swing and my mom is clipping spent daffodils in the falling light, I decide to take a walk around the field. Constellations of fat yellow dandelions are scattered on the path, but it’s the few who have become blowballs that glow at sunset as if it were my eye they wanted to catch instead of the wind.

In August, a sea of soybean plants had risen in this field, and before that in a rare double-crop year, muscly wheat stalks heavy with berries were being harvested when we visited, 40 rows at a time, chaffed, and piled into mountains of gold in open trucks. 

Now on this quiet April evening, the field is striated with purples, yellows, and greens. Wide swaths of field balm, violets, butterweed, and wild onion have made the plot into a watercolor rainbow.

I’ve always been torn between the triumphs of human achievement and the unspeakable grace of what unfolds all by itself.

These bitter greens, once collected for nourishment or medicine, will soon be cleared so that we can inject seeds into the ground, the kind that will give us what we love and what we need. French bread and three-layer cakes, taco shells and dumplings, drywall and school glue, toothpaste and tires. 

One morning, I convinced the kids to help me walk around the perimeter of the lower pasture to pick up trash that had blown in from the highway. In summer, brush hides the Pepsi cans and Teddy Graham wrappers, Bedda Chedda packages, and dog food bags that we found. Spring’s bareness uncovers of the carelessness of man.


I tell my parents about the apple blossoms and how I’ve missed seeing them when we come in summer, how happy the trees seem to be. 

“Last year we only had two or three apples,” my mom tells me. She goes through all the things she and my dad have tried to help them. And then she says, “When Grandpa was alive those trees would be noisy with the buzzing of bees.” 

The next time I go to the apple trees, I hear the silence. A single honeybee is visiting. I take pictures of the blossoms again, but now their beauty is tinged with sadness.

The collapse of bee colonies is a sign of our modern blight, the sickness of the world. We have lost our sense of interconnectedness. Nature has become a resource we use to get what we want. Our domination is so complete that we will find ourselves alone, actors in a play we have decided is about us.


At the greenhouse by the cheap gas station and the bait shop, my mom asks the kids to help her select seedlings of cauliflower, brussel sprouts, cabbage, and broccoli.

She won’t need that many because she’s replacing one of her vegetable beds with a pollinator garden of butterfly bushes, Joe Pye weed, and cone flowers. When the owner sees her considering a packet of milkweed seeds, he laughs and says, “My grandmother used to make me go pull that up!”

The problem starts when we forget that everything is sacred. As long as some people or things on earth are revered and others are not, it will be hard to see the bees and the trees and the weeds as holy. Splitting the world splits us inside and we walk around broken, looking for something to make us whole, not knowing that we have been whole all along.

I had bad dreams one night, and as I prepared breakfast for myself the next morning in the cottage, I thought, What if I walked through my days seeing everything as sacred? The pasteurized homogenized milk in my coffee. The genetically-modified industrially farmed corn in my cereal. The dirty sock on the floor, the bricks in the big house, the glue in the particle-board bookshelf.

That sun-bleached potato chip bag forgotten by the side of the road — it’s sacred too. How could it not be when everything has come from the earth and everything will return to it?


On the day before we leave the farm, I put on my gloves to look for trash along the upper pasture. On the way, I visit a lush apple tree as beautiful as a statue, a barn that used to shelter the herefords that my grandfather kept, and the stone gate by Lower Twin that I knew when I was a child.

Collecting beer cans, McDonald’s cups, and ice cream tub lids is a way I can participate. One day this place will be ours to care for, and it to care for us.

In the pasture, I see what look like bones in the grass. The remains of a tree stump has been weathered by rain and whitened by sun. Filling its cavity and encircling it are choirs of purple dead-nettles, a plant once used for treating wounds and healing tuberculosis. In England it’s still called archangel.

When I treat everything as sacred — the faucet water that rinses my hands, the contact lenses I put in my eyes, the toothpaste that cleans my teeth — I slow down. And it becomes easier to do the hardest thing of all — to see myself as sacred. Even the white hairs that shine silver in the bathroom mirror. The skin on my calves that crinkle like crepe as I pull up my socks. I am part of everything that lives and dies.

I don’t feel so helpless anymore. And I stop worrying that I don’t know how to complete the circle. When I find the holiness in everything, I find the beginning and the end. I have a feeling that this knowing is all I need.

When to Wear Gloves

My mother always wore gardening gloves, even when she drove a hand spade into the soft suburban ground to nestle her purple hyacinth bulbs. 

But I’m different. I don’t care that my knuckles get nicked or that my nails are ringed with half-moons of dirt. I want to make contact with the minerals and the stems, no formalities needed.

When the seasons collided in late winter and it was summer for a day, I barreled into the garden and raked and clipped and swept and gathered all the crumpled leaves, the flower balls, and slanted twigs. They had kept the ankles of the plants warm, but now they were wool socks on a muggy day.

After I hauled the remains to the botanical cemetery behind the garage, the backs of my hands were alive with red scratches and my fingers were christened with a dusting of glimmery dirt. 

But by afternoon a gash on my palm ached. That night I scrubbed out the dirt with a bar of Ivory, just as my mom would ward off poison ivy with Fels-Naptha laundry soap. 

Maybe it needed antibiotics, I thought, dabbing some on and going to bed with a bandage. 

The next day, the pink opening called to me with the only voice it had. I soaked it in warm water again, but at the deepest part, a speck remained. With a pair of tweezers and eyes sharper than mine, my son extracted an infinitesimal thorn.

I’ve never thought of myself as a warrior. Swords are for killing and shields are for raising barriers. But don’t we hurt each other every day without even trying? Don’t lovers protect themselves from what their bodies want to conceive? Danger comes in equal measure as beauty.

Nature has boundaries, and so must you. Coax the climbing roses, claw out the river stones, press the seeds in deep, but take care. Protect yourself so love can last.

Dangerously Alive

To practice for their summer trip to the national parks, Sofia and her best friend decided to hike Old Rag Mountain. Nine miles around and 2,680 feet up.

On her day off work at the bakery, they drove with new driver’s licenses to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia. 

“Shortcutting is dangerous,” said a wooden sign at the base. They trekked over needle ice. They climbed traprock staircases, they overtook ice rivers.

On that day cut with a diamond sun, Sofia had no time to stream The Great British Baking Show or to set silverware on folded napkins before dinner. She was crawling up billion-year-old boulders with two arms and two legs.

It was dark when the front door opened and the night air brought her in. As she untied her shoes, she swiped through glowing images on her phone. Shoulders resting against rock walls, pink noses, clouds of effort. Her eyebrows were rainbows. And her face was lit from the inside.

The Mourning Dove Tells Me

I hear the coo of a mourning dove,
swaying as a porch swing does 
in the breeze by itself,
and I remember this time last year.
Spring was coming, 
but we didn’t predict 
the total eclipse.

I want to hug the person I was, 
scared and so lost.
To mother the child
when a bosomy clasp 
in a rocking chair
could still ease the pain.

In late February, 
crystalline light outlines 
the cypress fronds, 
shards of ice lose their edge, 
green points push 
out of the brown, 
and I want to run outside 
like a child 
who sees a friend at the door.

Dare I trust spring again?
The vaccine is here, but 
three thousand died every day
last month. 
In Los Angeles, funeral homes
rent refrigerated trucks 
to hold all the bodies,
and in Maryland, graves 
can’t be dug fast enough 
with shovels and backhoes,
so they must lay dynamite.

Conspiracies keep felling minds,
and the virus keeps morphing 
into new mutations
in South Africa, Britain, and Brazil.

The song of the mourning dove
swaying up, up and then down
seems to tell me,
Cry for all we have endured, 
for how strong you’ve been.

John James Audubon

Let the knots unloose,
the rain soak into you.
Let the ice thaw, and
the sun light up 
every one of your fronds.

Allow the wind to decide 
what branches need to fall
and which can still point to the sky.

Plant your feet deep in the ground,
and let every tendril take up 
the fertile funeral of last year’s loss.

Like the rain that has seen tragedies 
and majesties that you will never know,
you too must return.

Those choirs of geese 
making giant arrows in the sky,
those woodpeckers drumming,
these snowdrops blooming —
they are here to lead you out.

Receive, let go, fly.
This is what it feels like to be alive.

A Rainbow Puddle Under the Fig Tree

Diana and her new friend 
make hearts out of snow 
with plastic molds
my sister mailed
from Arizona.

They press a heart 
onto the tip
of a fig tree branch,
decorate it with 
food coloring —
red and yellow,
green and blue.

Like a sno-cone 
once bright 
with syrup,
the heart
begins to pale, 
and drip by drip,
onto the sidewalk 
a rainbow spills.

In the Abundant Heart of Winter

In the heart of winter, sadness has given way to acceptance, and even gratitude. After the quarantines and social distancing of summer, the arrival of winter had felt like a grim sentence. Yet even within the suffering and anguish of the world, there have been gifts.

Once a year in my former life, I would drive for hours to some remote lodge where phone calls and newsletters and signup sheets couldn’t reach me. The flames inside took several days to die down.

I spent hours without talking, I took walks in the woods, I went to bed early.

I always arrived confused and broken. Fooled by the outsides of people. They who seemed so confident, so easeful, so strong. And I, a sea turtle following the city lights instead of the moon.

This winter we hung the bird feeder my father gave us last summer. Squirrels and sparrows and cardinals gather in our backyard. Sharing, stealing, racing and chasing each other over the top of the bench by the fire pit, underneath the new trampoline, past the garage with the weight machine my husband assembled with the boys, and the rock tumbler, tumbling and rumbling raw amethyst and tiger’s eye into gems for Diana.

The kids play for hours outside in the cold because this is how they can see a friend. Riding bikes, clutching sleds, climbing trees, and tossing footballs until the sky turns dark. When a door closes, another opens.

If it weren’t for the virus, would we have kept clambering for more — richer, taller, fuller, more?
Terrified of what would happen if we stopped. If we let things decline, decay, melt back into the earth.
Cancer is the name we give to what never stops growing.

I used to love silent breakfast at the retreat center. Naps in the dorm room.
I would watch the sky turn gradations of yellow and gray and taupe from my bunk bed and think, God must live here. I didn’t realize that this was the feeling of being at one with myself in the world.

This winter silence, this absence, this draining of color and noise. An abundance of stillness.
Time to reflect, time to paint, to sew, to read, to dream.
Destruction blowing on the embers of creation.

My children have been doing school at home for almost a year now. The crowds of people I’d see every day — men in suits, women in hose, getting on the metro after dropping off their kids — I don’t see them anymore. I always imagined they were rushing off to do important things. Science or Education. Congress. World Peace. And I’d go home to my writing room and try to spin straw into gold by 3 o’clock.

Our high school senior is now in that room logging into class on Microsoft Teams. I write in the bedroom with the cat, who always finds an empty nook in my body to find warmth. Down the hall, Diana does reading workshop, and in her breaks, shows me how fast she can type on Typing.com. The boys are in the living room below, and our college student has returned home, now getting ready for her job at the bakery.

Death and life are two sides of the same coin. Endlessly flipping, tossing, through eternity.

Some days, when my husband takes the kids out, all I hear is the faint rumble of a plane plowing through the clouds. A single car shimmering over the icy street.

I tell myself, surrender.
Be still, while you can.
Go deeper.
Rest.
And when you wake, do not let yourself be led around on a leash by your barking brain.
Be guided by the heart of you, that silent prow cutting through the uncertain seas of your life.